Social Media Background Checks: A Guide for HR Professionals

In an increasingly digitized and interconnected world, social media platforms offer a window into individuals’ personal lives, opinions, social conduct, and activities, making them a potentially valuable resource for HR professionals during the hiring process. 

Especially now that Gen Z—a generation known for being “chronically online” with a large digital footprint—is in the workforce and will account for 27% of the workforce by 2025, accessible background information about candidates is growing for employers. 

As such, social media background checks are becoming increasingly popular to gain insight into a candidate’s character, values, and potential cultural fitness before bringing them on board. In fact, upwards of 70% of employers are conducting social media checks today in order to reduce hiring risk

Social Media Background Checks 101

A social media background check involves reviewing a candidate’s online presence, particularly on social platforms like Facebook, X, LinkedIn, TikTok, and Instagram, to learn more about the applicant’s personal life, affiliations, and network.  

Social media searches help employers spot red flags (i.e. hate speech that might not come up during the interview process) and get insights into how an applicant could affect the company through what they say online—ultimately reducing risk. 

However, they also present ethical and legal challenges and can’t offer the same level of risk protection that a professional background check provides

Instead, social media background checks should be added as another step to an organization’s robust pre-employment background screening program to supplement the information gathered through a traditional background check. 

Spotting Digital Red Flags 

But, what exactly are employers searching for via social media screenings? 

The intent is similar to that of a standard background check: to confirm that a prospective employee will fit in with the company’s culture, to validate details on a candidate’s CV (in a world where 78% of candidates lie on their resumes), to minimize the chances of employee attrition or disciplinary measures, to safeguard the company’s reputation, and ensure a safe workplace environment.

Collecting this information via social media—in addition to a professional background check— adds another layer of protection for employers since an in-depth look at what someone posts online can provide a more qualitative view of who they are as a person and who they will be as an employee. 

Some examples of red flags that come up during social media background checks include: 

  • Drug usage, underage drinking, or other unlawful behavior 
  • Racist or sexist conduct 
  • Trolling, stalking, or other aggressive tendencies  
  • Sexually explicit material
  • Sharing confidential information about a previous employer 
  • Bad-mouthing a previous employer online 

Among those that conduct background checks, a whopping 54% have claimed to have found content as a result of the social media background check that caused them not to hire a candidate. 

Navigating Ethics and Compliance 

Social media background checks, like any pre-employment screening process, raise ethical questions about candidate privacy, discrimination, and the accuracy of information collected. 

Because social media screening is a newer practice, and there is less dialogue, guidance, and regulation around it, employers should proceed with caution in order to maintain ethical hiring practices and remain compliant with federal, state, and local laws

Keep It Role-Focused

To start, employers should prioritize social media checks for roles where online activity is particularly relevant to the job description, like a public-facing management position or a social media specialist. Limiting online checks in this way helps employers reduce discrimination and privacy risks while also collecting the information they need. 

Follow Compliance Guidelines

Employers should also ensure that their social screening practices are in line with FCRA guidelines to lawfully and legally take advantage of social media background checks. The standard process should include getting written consent from the candidate before checking their social networks, documenting negative findings, communicating those findings via a pre-adverse notice to provide space for dialogue and explanations, and delivering a final adverse action notice. 

Prioritize Accuracy 

Finally, employers should take into account that not all information on social media is reliable, true, or factual. Many people share the same name, so it can be difficult for employers to confirm that they’re collecting information on the right person. Some candidates have been hacked or impersonated online, further complicating error-free data collection. Sometimes, information is outdated, and something posted years ago might not reflect a qualified candidate’s current beliefs, values, or maturity. 

HR leaders need to train their teams to spot reliable information and create strict standards for social media searches that promote the collection of accurate, reliable information that is directly relevant to the hiring decision.

Using Social Media Screening to Bolster Background Checks 

Over-reliance on social media screening is perhaps the biggest pitfall for employers when creating a comprehensive pre-employment screening program that reduces the risk of making a bad hire

As mentioned, social media background screening should always be paired with a traditional background check conducted by a professional background screening service accredited by the PBSA

The data collected during a social media background check should only function as secondary context or added texture to the more reliable information gathered during an official background check, which includes things like criminal history, educational history, employment history, and more—information that has been proven to help employers detect threats during hiring

But, when employers follow all compliance and privacy best practices and pair them with a comprehensive professional background check, they unlock the true power of social media background screening for improving hiring outcomes. 

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